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Winn Chayefsky Follows Famous Brother's Curtain Call : Late-Blooming Playwright Says 'Reluctant Saint' Is Nothing at All Like Paddy's Work

February 26, 1988|CHRISTINE ZIAYA

When Paddy Chayefsky was alive, the playwright used to bounce ideas off family members. His brother Winn recalls strolling down 79th Street in New York City with Paddy one evening after dinner.

"Paddy was telling me this story about this lonely butcher guy . . . He asked me what I thought about the idea. I told him it was the worst synopsis I ever heard--and naturally, it turned out to be the story for 'Marty,' " Winn said with a laugh.

Paddy Chayefsky went on to win three academy awards for "Marty," "The Hospital" and "Network." The family stopped critiquing his work.

About three years ago, Winn, a retired New York businessman, embarked on his own writing career. After 12 drafts, his first play, "The Reluctant Saint," had its preview performances last weekend at the Mise En Scene theater in North Hollywood. It opens officially this weekend.

"Am I nervous? Of course I'm nervous," he said during previews, his foot tapping the seat in front of him. "I find it difficult to believe there's a playwright alive who wouldn't be nervous on opening night."

'It Doesn't Mean a Damn Thing'

Winn Chayefsky, 67, is prepared for comparisons to his brother. "Truthfully, it doesn't mean a damn thing to me. I like writing and I will continue to do it--no matter what."

The play's director, Roger Hendricks Simon, said he does see certain similarities between the works of Winn and Paddy Chayefsky: "The sense of language, and the sense of a theatrical idea. Both write bigger than life," he said. "Also the strong sense of the religious and the mystical. Paddy had a lot of that in his work.

"If people come expecting a play by Paddy, though, they'll be very disappointed."

"The Reluctant Saint" is the story of Vinnie Lupo (Sylvester Rich), who dies and is resurrected as a celebrity saint. The play's final version owes much to the collaborative efforts of Winn and Simon, who has worked as a director with the New York Shakespeare Festival, La Mama, the Lincoln Centre Rep, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and the Royal Court Theatre in London.

"I've worked with a lot of writers in developing their work--William Saroyan, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Lawrence," Simon said. He has also worked with Edward Albee, John Guare, Terrence McNally and Israel Horowitz. "I must say, working with Winn has been the most satisfying of all."

The duo revised "The Reluctant Saint" in Simon's New York theater workshop. Simon realized the play would need a lot of work, he said, but "it was the spirit of the play that attracted me. It's a warm, gentle comedy."

After countless readings with professional actors, the play's metamorphosis was under way. Although Winn Chayefsky found writing dialogue easy, structure baffled him. Eventually, the entire first scene would be eliminated; the second act would undergo more than a few revisions. The setting of the play changed from an Italian section of Baltimore to a small village in Italy. The final cast would be minus one player.

"The Reluctant Saint" was selected from among 400 plays to be performed at the Joan Gordon Theater of the Woodstock Playhouse in New York during the summer of 1986. The intensity of the pair's work grew.

"We were looking for new plays with messages," said Harris Gordon, executive director of the now defunct theater. "Of the five plays we chose that year, this one seemed to have the most commercial value."

Two days before opening night, though, Chayefsky was busy rewriting Act II. Following the play's limited run there, Simon said it was easy to see what needed refinement.

Laughs to the End

Said Betty Sandberg in her review of the play in the Sept. 25, 1986, issue of The Daily Freeman: " . . . 'The Reluctant Saint' at the Joan Gordon Theater is a well-paced comedy, delivering laughs through to the end . . . the best written of the new plays in terms of the plot action."

"We had an exciting response, but it was a summer-theater response," Simon said. "Not to say there's anything wrong with that, but there still were structural things wrong."

So it was back to the drawing board one more time.

Meanwhile, Chayefsky and Simon began thinking about where to take the show next. "I had heard a lot about the L.A. theater scene," Simon said. "I sensed from what I heard that L.A. was the way New York used to be 20 years ago. New York in the '60s was a place where theater could really be developed. Now you can't afford New York."

Chayefsky said that his wife of 38 years, Terry, has been tremendously supportive during the development of his play, as have his children and his other brother, Bill.

"I only wish I had started 10 years ago," he said. "If other people my age are thinking of switching careers, I'd tell them: 'Never hesitate. Anytime you have a desire to move into another career, do it, do it, do it.' "

He also has begun work on his second play, a drama about two sisters who haven't seen each other in 50 years.

"All my plays are involved with families. My family is very important to me," he said. "And all my plays will have happy endings. I don't like unhappy endings--I think we should put as much happiness as we can into the world."

"The Reluctant Saint" runs Thursdays through Sundays until March 6 at the Mise En Scene theater, 11305 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. For information, call: (818) 763-3101.

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